Making Democracy Work

History of the League

The League of Women Voters started after women got the right to vote.

National League History

Carrie Chapman Catt, LWV Founder
Carrie Chapman Catt
LWV Founder
In her address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) 50th convention in St. Louis, Missouri, President Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the creation of a "league of women voters to finish the fight and aid in the reconstruction of the nation."  Women Voters was formed within the NAWSA, composed of the organizations in the states where suffrage had already been attained.

The next year, on February 14, 1920 - six months before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified - the League was formally organized in Chicago as the national League of Women Voters. Catt described the purpose of the new organization:

    "The League of Women Voters is not to dissolve any present organization but to unite all existing organizations of women who believe in its principles.  It is not to lure women from partisanship but to combine them in an effort for legislation which will protect coming movements, which we cannot even foretell, from suffering the untoward conditions which have hindered for so long the coming of equal suffrage.  Are the women of the United States big enough to see their opportunity?"

Maud Wood Park became the first national president of the League and thus the first League leader to rise to the challenge. She had steered the women's suffrage amendment through Congress in the last two years before ratification and liked nothing better than legislative work. From the very beginning, however, it was apparent that the legislative goals of the League were not exclusively focused on women's issues and that citizen education aimed at all of the electorate was in order.

Since its inception, the League has helped millions of women and men become informed participants in government. In fact, the first league convention voted 69 separate items as statements of principle and recommendations for legislation. Among them were protection for women and children, right of working women, food supply and demand, social hygiene, the legal status of women, and American citizenship.The League's first major national legislative success was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act providing federal aid for maternal and child care programs.  In the 1930's, League members worked successfully for enactment of the Social Security and Food and Drug Acts. Due at least in part to League efforts, legislation passed in 1938 and 1940 removed hundreds of federal jobs from the spoils system and placed them under Civil Service.

During the postwar period, the League helped lead the effort to establish the United Nations and to ensure U.S. Participation. The League was one of the first organizations in the country officially recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization; it still maintains official observer status today.

Today the League welcomes men and woman as members, but remains a grassroots organization with 800 Leagues throughout all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.

See also League History from the League of Women Voters of the US.

Local League History - Scarsdale Suffragists

EXCERPTS FROM "A SHORT SURVEY OF THE BIRTH AND BACKGROUND, BABYHOOD AND GROWTH OF THE LWVS" BY ANNE CARTOUN, 1951

The League of Women Voters of Scarsdale was founded in 1921. However, the history of the League in Scarsdale, should not start with its founding but with the activities of the Scarsdale women suffragists, which began seven years earlier. The Scarsdale of 1914 would be almost unrecognizable to the villagers of today. It was a small town whose inhabitants worked and lived here. Route 22, a quiet narrow road, passed across one portion of the township, and Popham Rd. cut from it down into the village. There were very few homes on Popham, and only a few stores in the Village. Scarsdale Avenue was a daisy-riddled field. The Edgewood section was farmland and Fox Meadow was a private estate.

In this small village in 1914 the Scarsdale branch of the NYS Equal Suffrage League was organized under the chairmanship of Mrs. F.H. Bethell, Mrs. E.H. Anderson- VP, Mrs. Willard Winslow-Secretary, and Mrs. W.E. Castle-Treasurer. With a dozen members the group sought to gain membership of fifty members in the first year, with annual dues of $1.

The More Chiffon the Better

Mrs. Bethell`s interest in suffrage began one evening when she and some friends, feeling quite daring and frivolous, went to hear an English woman speak on suffrage. They arrived at the meeting expecting to hear a loud-voiced and masculine woman tell them why they should have the vote. Instead, a frail and dainty lady talked to them about the work that had been accomplished in England. So impressed were they that they went home without a word. They read, studied, attended meetings in NYC, and finally organized the Scarsdale branch of the Suffrage League in 1914.

The work was hard. There was an anti-suffrage group with paid workers, even in Scarsdale. Opposition came not only from men, but also from many Scarsdale women themselves.

Mrs. Bethell developed her own technique of public speaking. She donned her longest, fluffiest and most feminine dresses and was very polite. The more chiffon the better, was her opinion. Mrs. Bethell recalled one story in which she was asked to speak to the men in the Italian section of Hartsdale. While mounting the speaker's platform, she leaned heavily on a large beer-y man who helped her up. "Gentlemen," she said "because you love your sweet wives and dear mothers, I know you would like them to have the privilege of expressing themselves in the vote." She leaned heavily again on the beer-y man who helped her down. "That was the best speech we ever heard" the man confided to her. ..and the audience evidently agreed.

The Time for Quiet Work was Over

The Scarsdale Suffragists spoke all over Westchester County. Mrs. Bethell and Mrs. Montgomery were among a group who went to Washington to speak to President Wilson. The Scarsdale Suffrage League took an opinion poll in 1914 to determine local sentiment. Of the 365 letters sent to the populace, 200 were returned, over 100 were in favor, 30 opposed and 26 neutral. The objections raised to women's suffrage were fear of increasing the unintelligent vote, fear of overburdening women, fear of exploitation of feminism and hence the dissolution of home, and the general fear that no good and much evil would result.

In 1915 the Wayside Tea House was taken over as the League's campaign headquarters. Now the time for quiet work was over, they decided. Suffrage pins and signs were distributed. A "melting pot" was held where contributions of old jewelry, cash--anything could be donated to help the drive.

The women attended a "School for Watchers at the Polls", they went to the Hartsdale Democratic rally and more. But for all their work, the November 1915 elections were a disappointment. Mrs. Bethell was prepared, however with a huge yellow placard which was promptly hung outside Wayside Cottage that read "Victory Postponed. Regular Meeting Next Tuesday."

In 1916 the Scarsdale Suffrage League broadened its focus in local civic welfare to further its own cause. It became greatly interested and effective in village improvement through its association with the Red Cross, the Parents Association, and current events clubs among others. By 1917 the Scarsdale Suffrage Club had gained prestige and influence through its outside work. It did much to improve the conditions of immigrant laborers for the neighborhood, including starting an English school for them.

With the beginning of WWI, promised funds were withdrawn and contributions to the suffragist movement ceased. Mrs. Bethell had to carry a major part of the load herself. The Scarsdale Suffrage Club put itself wholeheartedly into war work during this period.

Success & the Birth of LWVS

Suffrage for the women of NY State was passed in the fall of 1917. Just before the election, the Scarsdale Suffrage Club sent postcards asking"Why do you so violently oppose women's suffrage?" Many men later said they could not vote against women's suffrage after having received this card.

Following the elections, a local debate occurred as to whether the club should disband or remain firm. It was decided the club should remain intact until there was a federal amendment for suffrage. However, the Scarsdale Suffrage and Civics Club lasted hardly a year. Toward the end of 1918 they voted to dissolve, and reorganized into a Women's Club, housed at Wayside Cottage.

The nineteenth amendment was signed in 1920. The League of Women Voters was founded that same year, with the Scarsdale League formed in 1921 with Mrs. Bethell as its first President.